Ahead of the visit of Newcastle United to Selhurst Park, we had a chat with former Palace programmer editor and fan of the Toon Army LUKE TUGBY on the season so far, thoughts ahead of the game and much more.
Q. The last campaign was quite an odd one as things go but how did you rate it from a Newcastle perspective?
I was convinced we would go down under Steve Bruce, so to finish 13th wasn’t a bad season – on paper, at least – and it was nice to have a decent run in the FA Cup, getting to the last eight. But those ‘achievements’ only really served to paper over some pretty gaping cracks. We felt like a team searching desperately for an identity all season and struggled to string together anything resembling consistent form.
There were a few standout performances, like the 1-0 wins over Man United and Chelsea, and the 4-1 procession at Bournemouth after lockdown on a night when we could easily have scored 7 or 8. But they were offset by some real horror shows – the meek surrenders at Arsenal, both Manchester clubs and losing 8-0 on aggregate to Leicester all stick in the memory. The fact that what should have been such a confidence-boosting win at Bournemouth was in fact our last win of the season says it all – we picked up just two points from our final six games, which set the tone really going into the current campaign.
Q. How are fans feeling about the season ahead and what are the expectations?
Once again, expectations are low. The hope, excitement and optimism that the Saudi takeover attempt brought with it has well and truly vanished and we feel like a club that is simply existing at the moment. We have an owner who has lost all interest in running or investing in the club, a manager who is incredibly out of his depth despite what his friends in the media say, and a group of players crying out for an astute head coach to find a system and a style of play that can get the best out of them.
We performed well at West Ham on the opening day and against Everton at the start of November, but our defeats at Southampton and at home to Brighton were embarrassing – and ‘smash and grab’ doesn’t even begin to describe the points we somehow stole at Spurs and Wolves. It feels very early in the season to be saying it, but this match marks the start of a crucial run of games – after Palace, we play Villa, West Brom, Leeds and Fulham. Two wins from those five is the bare minimum we need if we are to avoid a relegation scrap this season.
Q. How active were Newcastle in the transfer window and are there any areas that will need attention in January?
Despite how downbeat I sound, we actually had a decent window. Callum Wilson is the clinical finisher we’d been crying out for and clinching a Bosman deal for Ryan Fraser – with whom Wilson struck up such a fruitful partnership at Bournemouth – was brilliant business. Jamal Lewis, the young Northern Irish left back we signed from Norwich, still looks a little rough around the edges but has great potential, and Jeff Hendrick, another free transfer from Burnley, is a solid addition to the midfield. Our squad is certainly the best we’ve had for a number of years, but it still needs more depth. An injury to Wilson would be a disaster with Dwight Gayle – himself injured at the moment – our best deputy and I still think we need more quality at right back, centre half and in midfield. But the likelihood of Ashley opening up his wallet again in January is slim, at best.
Q. The fans views on Mike Ashley seemed to have quietened down a little but how much of a blow was it for the potential new ownership to fall through?
I was never enamoured by the prospect of Saudi Arabian ownership given the country’s questionable human rights record and the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, so I wasn’t as gutted as some were when that deal collapsed. That said, this is a club and a fanbase in desperate need of new ownership. Ashley has lost interest and wants out. Until he finds himself an exit, any sense of progress or ambition will be non-existent.
I get fed up of seeing dinosaurs like Mark Lawrenson offering their lazy punditry, claiming Newcastle fans think we should be winning the Champions League. It’s utter bollocks. All we want is an owner that cares and creates a team that competes, a team that entertains, a team that takes pride in the black and white. Look at the years we had under Keegan and Sir Bobby – we didn’t win anything, but we enjoyed that era so much. When Ashley goes, we may finally get to experience times like those again.
Q. We are keen to see young players coming through the ranks here at TEB so is there anyone that we should keep an eye on who could make the breakthrough into the Newcastle first eleven?
Kel Watts is one who could have a big future. He’s a 21-year-old defender who spent last season on loan at Stevenage and Mansfield in League Two, and made his Premier League debut for us as a substitute in our final game of the 2019/20 campaign against Liverpool in July. He is out on loan again this term at League One side Plymouth and, from what I’ve seen and heard, has made the step up look effortless. Watts has played in all 13 of their matches so far – including the 1-0 FA Cup victory at Charlton earlier this month. He still has a way to go to prove he is cut out for the very top level of English football, but he certainly has all the tools at his disposal to become a first team regular at St James’ Park in a few years’ time.
Q. Let’s have some predictions from you for the season;
Premier League Champions – I’ll get pelters for this, and I’ll almost certainly be proved spectacularly wrong, but I’m going with Spurs. City haven’t hit their stride yet, Liverpool have lost the heart of their defence with Van Dijk and Gomez injured – that leaves the door open for a member of the pack to break through. What a story it would be if Jose could do it.
Champions League spots – Spurs, Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea
Relegated – Fulham, West Brom, Brighton
Surprise package – Southampton. It might be an easy selection after the start they’ve made, but I don’t think this is just a purple patch for them. Hasenhuttl has them playing some really good stuff with a nucleus of English players, which I like. They can make the top half this season.
FA Cup – Chelsea
League Cup – Manchester City
Q. A fully loaded question but what are your thoughts on the return of fans to games this season, pay-per-view, Project Big Picture and the European Premier League?
I think it’s bonkers we haven’t opened Premier League stadiums at reduced capacities yet. How can it be safer to let people into cinemas and theatres than into open air arenas? And the idea of fans actually going to a stadium and watching a game on a TV screen in a lounge, but not being allowed to take a seat on the other side of a window in view of the pitch, is laughable. Combating the spread of the virus has to be the number one priority, of course, but I don’t see why we couldn’t allow, say, 3,000 supporters into Selhurst or 6,000 into SJP in a socially-distanced way come the New Year.
As for pay-per-view, charging £14.95 a game during a global pandemic was scandalous and was always going to get a backlash from fans. The only thing that surprised me was Mike Ashley also lambasting the idea! The Premier League have rightly U-turned now, but the fact they started charging fans that amount in the first place unfortunately summed up what the top tier is becoming – it’s increasingly about money and power for the owners of the major clubs, and fans play second fiddle.
Project Big Picture was another prime example of that. It was nothing more than a power grab from United, Liverpool et al. Why should the Glazers, John W Henry and Roman Abramovich be allowed to have such control and influence our national game? It would have been a scandal. And why should Manchester City get to buy their way into that elite ‘big six’ and have a bigger say on matters than the remaining 14 Premier League clubs – including Newcastle, Everton, Villa and West Ham, who have all spent more seasons in the Premier League than they have? I’m just delighted everyone saw through their proposed handouts to EFL clubs as the brazen bribery attempt it really was.
The European Premier League is nothing but another money grabbing exercise. Under Big Picture, the ‘big six’ all wanted fewer teams in the Premier League and the EFL Cup scrapped to reduce fixture congestion, yet they are more than happy to load another 18-team league campaign and European travel into their calendars when there is money to be made. Personally, I can’t see it working. A run to the final of the Champions League, if you qualify directly for the group stage, is 13 games. The European Super League would presumably be 34 games, playing each team home and away. Alongside domestic commitments, it’s too many matches for even the biggest squads in Europe to cope with.
Q. What do you make of Palace ahead of the new season?
Having worked for Palace during their transition from Championship to Premier League, and followed them closely since leaving the club, this, for me, is far and away the strongest squad they’ve had since promotion. The bench against Leeds showed that – Butland, Sakho, Cahill, Benteke, Batshuayi – it’s a far cry from Jerome Thomas, Elliot Grandin and Aaron Wilbraham. Eze already looks an absolute steal and will reduce the onus on Wilf to carry the creative and goalscoring burden. Those two on the flanks and Batshuayi through the middle will cause any defence in this league serious problems on their day. But they remind me a bit of Newcastle at times – they were brilliant at Old Trafford, but then have days like the trips to Chelsea and Wolves where they seem happy to just sit back and hope to steal a lucky point. Palace’s squad is better than that and has the potential to finish in the top half.
Q. Name one player from each team that you believe will be a threat to the opposition in this match.
I’m seriously concerned about the threat of both Eze and Zaha. Stuart Armstrong and Moussa Djenepo got plenty of joy against the naive Jamal Lewis and makeshift wing back Jacob Murphy when we lost at Southampton before the international break. Eze and Zaha are better players than the Southampton duo, in my opinion, and could do some real damage.Allan Saint-Maximin is our standout player, but he is yet to hit the heights of last season and has looked a little isolated playing in a central role alongside Wilson.
Miguel Almiron is our other creative spark, but he, too, is not being deployed in his most effective positions – in the hole or on the wing – where he would cause Palace the most problems. So, sadly, the one to watch in black and white could end up being Murphy. Despite his defensive frailties, he’s carried a decent threat going forward since being brought back into the first team. He’s quick, can put a decent delivery into the box, and appears to be one of the few members of our squad actually playing with confidence at the moment.
Q. …and finallly, your all important prediction?
I can’t see anything other than a Palace win. I’m going for 2-0.